Education is a fundamental driver of personal, national and global development. Since the beginning of the century, recognition of this has driven many countries to pursue the Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education and eradicating gender disparities at all levels of education by 2015. This has contributed to considerable progress in expanding educational opportunities and attainment worldwide. But there is much more to be done.

To be sure, universal primary education has nearly been achieved. Moreover, considerable progress has been made toward gender equality in educational opportunities and attainment. Indeed, enrolment rates for school-age females have increased steadily at all levels, reaching near parity with male enrolment globally. As a result, the gender gap in average years of schooling for the adult population – a widely used measure of educational attainment – has narrowed.

Moreover, in 2010, for people aged 25 and above, the female-to-male ratio in average years of schooling was almost 100% in advanced countries and about 85% in developing regions. But, in many low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, girls still have far less access to education, especially at the secondary and tertiary levels, than boys do.

Significant global disparities also remain in post-primary education and the quality of schooling. In advanced countries, almost 90% of the population aged 15-64 has attained at least some secondary education, compared to only 63% in developing countries. Likewise, though more than 33% of the working-age population in advanced countries has achieved some level of tertiary education, the proportion is just 12% in the developing world.

Academic research suggests that countries with higher per capita income, lower income inequality, and lower fertility rates tend to invest more in children’s education, with public expenditure leading to higher enrollment rates. The logical conclusion is that efforts to promote more inclusive economic growth and improve education systems can raise enrollment among young people in developing countries and reduce disparities between genders and among social groups.

But simply narrowing the gaps in school-enrollment rates and total years of schooling is not enough. Countries must also ensure the quality of their education systems – a key challenge for the coming decades.

As it stands, poor educational outcomes and inefficient education systems are eliciting deep concern worldwide. In many countries, primary schools fail to provide students with appropriate cognitive skills like numeracy, literacy, problem-solving ability and general scientific knowledge.

Furthermore, inadequate education at the secondary and tertiary levels, including technical and vocational education and training, is leaving students unequipped to meet the job market’s changing demands. As a result, many countries are struggling with a mismatch between the skills that employers seek and those that workers have.

Wide disparities in educational quality, often measured by student achievement on international examinations, are evident within and across countries. The results of most internationally comparable mathematics, reading and science exams for primary and secondary students reveal a considerable gap not only between advanced and developing countries, but also across the developing world. According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, South Korea had the highest average score (590) in 2011 on the science test for secondary students, while Ghana scored the lowest (306).

Though academic performance is determined largely by family inputs and students’ individual talents, other factors, such as the amount of school resources available to students, also play an important role, as do various other school inputs, such as teacher quality, class size, expenditure per pupil and instruction time.

The institutional features of education systems are another important determinant of student achievement. Private financing and provision, school autonomy and external monitoring and assessment mechanisms tend to influence the quality of education by changing the incentives for students and teachers.

In the future, new information and communication technologies are expected to stimulate the expansion of educational opportunities and to improve educational quality at the national and global level, by offering a variety of innovative learning channels. For example, the ability to use new technologies to build borderless networks among schools can offer opportunities for students in low-income countries to learn from teachers in advanced countries – and vice versa.

The imperative is clear. Global leaders must commit to enhancing the quality of education and reduce the education gap by increasing school resources, improving the efficiency of educational institutions, and seizing the opportunities afforded by technological innovation. All of this will serve to enrich human capital, which is essential to boosting productivity and incomes.

Indeed, if such efforts are designed specifically to ensure equal opportunities for all, regardless of gender or wealth, they will be a boon to the global economy, while promoting social cohesion at the national level. When it comes to improving education, there really is no downside.

Published in collaboration with Project Syndicate.

Author: Lee Jong-Wha, professor of economics and director of the Asiatic Research Institute at Korea University, served as chief economist and head of the Office of Regional Economic Integration at the Asian Development Bank and was a senior adviser for international economic affairs to former President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea.

Image: Palestinian first-graders sit with their schoolbooks during class in the West Bank city of Ramallah February 4, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman